The products that roll out of Nintendo's doors are whimsical and wildly different than what leaves Microsoft or Sony's factories. Nintendo creates games and consoles in a secret vacuum of ergonomic white walls and strict NDAs, with rooms populated by fantastical creatures and short, foreign men with mustaches and overalls.
At least, that's an apt analogy that one developer recently made about Nintendo, the company's Business Development Manager, Dan Adelman, tells me. He's Nintendo's indie outreach specialist, and for years he's been scouting potential developers for Wii, 3DS and Wii U, and he's been a part of the company's recent evolution into what he hopes is a more open, transparent distributor.
Picture Willy Wonka's glass elevator.
"Historically, Nintendo has seemed kind of hard to approach, kind of like there's a closed system where if a developer already knows somebody at Nintendo or has some kind of 'in,' they're in, but otherwise there's no way to interface with the company," Adelman says. "I think we're putting a lot of effort into changing that and making ourselves more accessible, so I really want to make sure that people realize that it's actually pretty easy now – and we're trying to make it easier – to work with us and release games on our systems."
If Adelman is Wonka, he wants every developer to get a Golden Ticket.
One barrier Nintendo has been tearing down is the rule set for becoming an Authorized Developer. Anyone who wants to develop for Nintendo platforms has to submit an application, and the terms for acceptance used to involve roadblocks for many indies, such as having a secure office outside of the home. That requirement is gone, as is the necessity to have "relevant game industry experience."
Nintendo is still defining exactly what it means for a developer to have relevant experience, but the rules overall are more lax now, Adelman says.
"Our guiding philosophy is that if you're able to make games on Nintendo platforms, we want to help make sure that you can do that on our systems," he says. "Our primary consideration is an ability to make a game. You don't have to have a record of published titles, or have to have worked at a large company in the past. If you're actively working on a game, that should be sufficient."
At GDC, Nintendo announced a new website to help developers get started, and more than 1,000 people signed up using that page – Adelman and other Nintendo employees are still sifting through those applications. Aside from these developers, more reach out to Adelman every day through email, Twitter and at conventions. It's even becoming common for Kickstarter projects to add Wii U stretch goals, prefaced by lines like, "Nintendo offered us the chance to develop for Wii U .... "
Right now Adelman is scouting out developers at Casual Connect in San Francisco, and later this year he's off to PAX Prime and then probably GDC Europe and Gamescom in Cologne, Germany, in August.
"We underestimated how much demand was out there, so we're trying to catch up a little bit," Adelman says.
"As more and more content comes in, I'm expecting that's just going to take up a larger share of the available real estate on the screen," Adelman says. The merchandising team plans the eShop week by week, so as more indie games come out, more should populate the main page.
He expects 20 to 30 new indie games to hit Wii U by the holidays, if development goes smoothly for projects he has on the line now.
"Right now it's still in the early stages, particularly for Wii U," Adelman says. "I think 3DS is a much more mature platform in terms of the volume of games. There's still a relatively small number of indie games that are on the Shop, but we've got a whole bunch more coming this holiday. It takes that much time for games to go through the pipeline and finish development and release, so I think we'll see a lot more content coming through."
Nintendo is banking on this holiday influx to drive not only indie games, but also sales of Wii U consoles themselves. The company has shipped 3.61 million consoles since launching in November, with sales dropping off by more than half this quarter from the previous one, to 160,000. Nintendo expects to ship 9 million units by March 2014, the end of its fiscal year.
"I think we'd all like to see our install base grow a little bit faster, and I think we'll see that when our holiday lineup comes up," Adelman says. "I think a lot of developers are waiting on that. But so far, among the existing install base, purchases are pretty healthy and demand is pretty healthy, in that install base community."
"We often don't compare ourselves to other consoles. We have a history of doing our own thing, for better or for worse," he says. "We've had quite a bit of success not necessarily following the competition – for example, last generation with Wii, everyone was thinking it's all about graphics horsepower and CPU horsepower and high-end graphics and shaders, and I think the Wii successfully demonstrated that no, it's really all about gameplay and what kinds of new types of gameplay can you create, what new experiences can you create. Beauty fades."
Gameplay, Adelman says, is forever. Gameplay and Everlasting Gobstoppers.